Friday, November 28, 2014

Bills Shovel Jets Into Submission

For a few moments on the way to Monday’s 38-3 razing of the New York Jets, the Buffalo Bills looked doomed to run their streak of letting a dominant defensive performance go to waste and a winnable game slip away to three in a row.

Despite allowing the New York Jets to move the football forward by all of 35 yards over the first quarter and a half, while scoring their first touchdown in more than two full games, the Bills—riding a wave of misfortune that included come-from-ahead losses to Kansas City and Miami, as well as the rather inconvenient snowfall that forced the game to be delayed by a day and moved to Detroit—led only 7-3 when Michael Vick took the field with 9:27 remaining before halftime.

Vick, who had not completed a pass gaining more than 5 yards to that point, hooked up with Jerome Kerley for 10. Chris Ivory went up the gut for 11 more, putting New York at Buffalo’s 34. At the least, Vick had his offense within range of a long field goal. At the most, Vick seemed poised to make like Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill by giving his team a lead that it had not done much to deserve, but would never surrender.

Then New York pulled off perhaps the Jetsiest sequence the Jets have ever Jetsed.

They failed to get the ball snapped before taking a delay-of-game penalty. Even after getting another 25 seconds following the infraction, they still couldn’t get a play called and had to use a timeout before being forced to retreat another five yards.

Two plays later, Mario Williams struck, chasing Vick down from behind for a 9-yard sack. After the Jets showed they have as much trouble with the snap count as the play clock with a false-start penalty and Williams harassed Vick into an incompletion, they punted away the ball and what would be their last, best chance at the game.

Buffalo had one more shot at Billsing it up. Kyle Orton, in the midst of easily his best overall performance since taking over for E.J. Manuel in Week 5, had completed seven of nine throws to move the Bills from their own 10-yard line to a first-and-goal from New York’s 9.

Whereupon he slowly retreated from the Jets’ pass rush, which quickly caught up to him for a 10-yard loss. At that point, expectations dwindled from a touchdown that would create a double-digit cushion going into halftime to maybe a field goal that would keep the Jets hanging around. Just like the Chiefs. And the Dolphins.

Instead, Orton zipped one down the middle to Scott Chandler, who celebrated Buffalo’s second touchdown of the game—the first time his team had reached that modest milestone since thrashing the Jets 43-23 on Oct. 26—with some deft snow-shoveling pantomime.

At that point, the Jets appeared to call it a season. There’s no way to know what Rex Ryan said to inspire his team at halftime, but the way it performed the rest of the night, “Hey, let’s be careful out there,” or “Boy, you guys suck,” sounds about right.

Early in the third quarter, Boobie Dixon bulldozed Zach Sudfeld close enough to Jets punter Ryan Quigley (to whom Artvoice Editor Buck Quigley categorically denies being related)—the guy Sudfeld was supposed to be protecting—to swat the ball into the end zone, where Manny Lawson cradled it for a 24-3 lead.

From there, the Bills kept pounding on Vick, sacking him five times in just 25 drop-backs, until he limped to the sideline with a severely bruised everything.

It would be tough to overstate the Jets’ lousiness. I’ve covered hundreds of NFL press conferences over the years, but never heard a coach use words like “horrible” or “awful” to describe their team. Ryan used both.

“A horrible performance,” Ryan said. “We couldn’t do anything. Couldn’t block, couldn’t tackle, couldn’t cover. It was just an awful performance.”

True as that may be, New York’s incompetence and apathy don’t negate Buffalo’s positives:

• Williams delivered his second straight multi-sack game, giving him 5.5 in his last two outings and 12 on the season, and along with linemates Jerry Hughes (two sacks) and Kyle Williams (one), generally laid waste to New York’s offensive plans.

• While the Jets kept Sammy Watkins quiet, they had no answer for Robert Woods. The second-year receiver posted career highs with nine catches for 118 yards, including Buffalo’s first touchdown and possibly the sweetest catch made by anyone not named Odell Beckham Jr. all season.

• Orton completed 75 percent of his passes, did not turn the ball over and failed to provide know-it-all columnists any reason to call for his benching.

All of which sustains Buffalo’s fond, but flickering hopes of ending its 15-year playoff absence until at least Sunday, when fellow borderline contender Cleveland comes to town.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Snow Shoves Bills Into Prime Time, Ready Or Not

At least you won't have to stay up late.

Buffalo's rescheduled, relocated game against the New York Jets is scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m., live from climate-controlled Ford Field in Detroit, so the final gun should go off in time to allow viewers to catch the late news or the Bette Midler episode of Seinfeld and still get to bed at an hour appropriate for a school night.

Or, for fans who work non-traditional hours, the under-employed or those in need of a sporting-palate cleansing after being exposed to the Bills and Jets slopping it up for three-plus hours, there's always the second half of Baltimore and New Orleans over on the originally scheduled Monday Night Football.

The Bills and Jets will be seen on CBS only by viewers in the metropolitan New York City market and upstate, along with Sunday Ticket subscribers across the country. Given the state of the competitors, this might seem like a mercy blackout by the NFL, but the limited broadcast results from the league's obligations to the various networks carrying its games.

You can't help but think, though, that CBS would have been willing to bump its block of laugh-track sit-coms and police-procedurals-with-a-twist, or that ESPN would have fought for the rights, if the Week 12 game displaced by a snow assault had been, say, New England-Detroit or Denver-Miami.

The Bills and Jets, though, were probably not going to stage an aesthetic triumph regardless of the date, time and location of their second annual meeting. Their first get-together somehow managed to be both high-scoring and dull, with long stretches of offensive ineptitude broken up by enough defensive breakdowns to get the final score to an unnatural-sounding 43-23, Buffalo.

Factor in the scheduling shift, additional travel required of both teams, and the Bills' snow-induced layoff on the week following their Thursday-night dud in Miami, and you shouldn't expect a taut thriller. Trying to predict how either of these teams will perform under the most favorable of circumstances has proven to be a game for suckers, so all the variables make it feel pretty silly to even try.

The knowables about tonight's contest haven't really changed since this preview, written after the first lake-effect blast, when it still seemed like Sunday in Orchard Park still seemed tenable. The second dose off Lake Erie took care of that possibility.

It also created the unique dynamic of elected officials telling the NFL to not even think about it, rather than meekly bowing to the will of The Shield, as well as the new Bills ownership facing their first real backlash over an ill-advised Tweet seeking people willing to help shovel out Ralph Wilson Stadium at a time when most of us were trying to figure out how to get to the end of our driveways.

Instead, the game wound up pushed back by a day and moved to Detroit, where Kyle Orton led a last-minute comeback in his first start for the Bills. With the exception of the aforementioned fluky blowout in New Jersey, Orton has gotten worse the more he's become accustomed to Buffalo's offense, so maybe the truncated, transplanted week of practice will actually help there.

Buffalo needs something to go right tonight in order to keep their dwindling playoff hopes from reaching the tortured-mathematics stage. A loss to the Jets would not only require the Bills to run an imposing table which includes dates with Denver, Green Bay and New England, the three clear-cut favorites to win Super Bowl XLIX heading into the weekend, according to the oddsmakers.

The Patriots did nothing to dissuade such thinking on Sunday, shredding Detroit's top-ranked defense on the way to a 34-9 win. The Broncos and Packers weren't quite as impressive, but wound up a field goal better than the Dolphins and Vikings, respectively.

Buffalo will need plenty of help to reach the postseason, and got a fair amount on Thursday and Sunday. Besides the Miami loss, Kansas City became Oakland's first victim of the season and Houston fell to Cincinnati, moving the Bills ahead of the Texans in the wild-card race. If New Orleans beats Baltimore and Buffalo comes out ahead of the Jets, the Bills will remain within one game of the wild-card leaders with five to play.

They would be in better shape but for Billy Cundiff's 37-yard walk-off field goal to get the Browns, who may or may not visit the region next Sunday, past Atlanta and a goal-line interception by St. Louis quarterback Shaun Hill, which allowed San Diego to escape with a 27-24 win.

For any of that to matter, though, Buffalo has to overcome the Jets and everything else the last week has wrought.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Reality Requires Manuel's Return

It's OK to stop pretending now.

Stop pretending that the Buffalo Bills, as presently constructed, have a realistic chance to get anywhere near the playoffs.

Stop pretending that a coaching staff that appears incapable of making the slightest of in-game adjustments deserves another season to figure this NFL thing out.

Most of all, stop pretending that Kyle Orton is a viable starting quarterback.

Orton's extended honeymoon with Bills fans and media -- and, obviously, coaches -- should have ended late Thursday night, after the veteran quarterback who ostensibly gives the Bills their "best opportunity to win" cost them the chance to do that in any way in the fourth quarter of a game his team desperately needed.

Doug Marrone is apparently sticking to his delusions of Orton's grandeur, though, declaring his allegiance moments after Buffalo's least-productive offensive performance of the season and second hope-crushing loss in four days.

In case you have already suppressed the memories, the Bills failed to score a touchdown in the final 114 minutes and 51 seconds, producing a total of 22 points in the pair of defeats. Of that total, zero came after Buffalo took 13-3 and 9-3 leads against Kansas City and Miami, respectively.

If you did not watch those games, you might want to claim defensive let-downs doomed the Bills. If you did, you saw a dominant unit that deserved near-total credit for both leads finally crack as the realization that it was completely on its own set in.

Or, if you are that type, you could gripe about the officiating in Miami's 22-9 win on Thursday. Both the intentional grounding call on Orton and the interference flag thrown at Stephon Gilmore were questionable, at best.

But replays show that Gilmore did hit Mike Wallace before the ball arrived, if only by a fraction of a second.

The grounding call was even iffier, given Sammy Watkins' proximity to the spot Orton's heave hit the ground. But it made no difference in the final outcome, since the Bills were already trailing and never scored again, despite Miami's Jarvis Landry fumbling away the ensuing free kick.

The play also lowlighted one of Orton's biggest shortcomings -- complete helplessness in the face of an NFL pass rush. Mobility was one of the sacrifices Marrone made by benching E.J. Manuel, but Orton has been unable to extend plays with even a single step in any direction, or to anticipate the rush in time to capitalize on a hot route.

On the rare occasions he has tried to escape, Orton runs as if both hamstrings have been severed. Before taking off on third-and-goal from Miami's 6-yard line just before Dan Carpenter's second field goal, he also missed an open Robert Woods cutting through the end zone from the right before stumbling forward for three yards.

And when Watkins got open for a should-have-been-touchdown that would have pulled Buffalo within three with 9:55 remaining, Orton fired it well over his head.

While much has been made of Marrone's decision to punt on fourth-and-6 from Miami's 47 two plays later, believing that the call cost Buffalo a chance at a comeback presumes Orton might have connected on a pass of six yards or more. Orton had completed just four of his 12 most recent passes, all of them dump-offs to Bryce Brown. At that point, you can't really blame Marrone for thinking a punt bouncing off a return man and into the end zone was a more feasible route to a Bills touchdown.

Through four games after taking over, Orton was marginally better than Manuel looked through the first four and led late comebacks against Detroit and Minnesota (which were largely necessary because he could not get much of anything done until the final minutes of each game). It was natural to assume that he would continue to improve the more familiar he became with his teammates and offensive system, so an Orton-led run to the playoffs seemed plausible.

Not any more.

Whatever it is that he did well in his first four games, opposing defenses have figured out how to take it away. The Bills are left with a quarterback who is every bit as capable as Manuel of failing to read opposing defenses and missing open receivers when he does see them, like the four straight fatal fourth-quarter misfires against Kansas City.

At the risk of belaboring a point frequently made elsewhere, Buffalo's defense deserves to be in the midst of the playoff chase. Through nearly six quarters against Kansas City and Miami, both fellow postseason aspirants, the Bills yielded a total of two field goals. Mario Williams delivered his best performance since coming to Buffalo against the Dolphins, piling up 3.5 sacks a week after Marcell Dareus delivered three.

In total, the league's best pass rush through 10 games dumped Alex Smith and Ryan Tannehill a total of 11 times. Buffalo won the turnover battle against the Dolphins and Chiefs by a combined 5-1 and still managed to lose two of the precise sort of games in which Orton's savvy and experience were supposed to make the difference.

The loss to Miami leaves Buffalo all alone in seventh place (at least until the 4-5 Texans visit Cleveland on Sunday) for the AFC's two wild-card spots. The Chiefs and San Diego already own the head-to-head tiebreaker over Buffalo, and each of the six teams they're chasing have better conference records, requiring the Bills to finish with a better record than all of them.

So, barring a half-dozen complete collapses by teams presently playing much better than they are, the Bills need to win out against a schedule that includes three of the NFL's top teams, as well as the surprisingly competent Browns.

That is not going to happen.

Restoring Manuel to the starting spot would not necessarily improve Buffalo's chances of reaching the postseason, or even finishing .500.

Manuel has, however, had seven healthy weeks of practice -- the longest such stretch of his pro career -- away from the spotlight and pressure that came with being the No. 16 pick in the 2013 draft. The possibility exists that he can still improve enough to be a decent NFL starter. That would be good to know, especially since the Watkins trade eliminated the 2015 first-rounder that might have otherwise been used on the next quarterback of the future.

The high point of the Orton Era to date, that 43-23 pasting of the reeling Jets, looks flukier with each passing game. In Orton's other five starts, his offense has produced a total of five touchdowns and averaged a shade over 16 points, with barely a touchdown per game coming before halftime.

Looking at the whole season, the Bills lead the league in drives started in opposing territory, yet only seven teams have managed fewer points per game. Those seven -- the Jets, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Oakland and Tennessee -- are a combined 13-52. So while Buffalo's defense (leading the league in sacks, tied for fourth in interceptions and No. 10 overall against the run) has performed at the level expected of a Super Bowl aspirant, the offense produces like a contender for the first overall draft pick.

Marrone isn't going to save his job by making the playoffs after his second season. Finding out if Manuel might still be able to take Buffalo there in Year 3 is the coach's best chance to still be around past January.

You can't guarantee that Manuel will be better than Orton has been, even over the last two games.

But it's tough to argue that he could be worse.

And there isn't a single good non-delusional reason not to find out.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

KC Loss Puts Bills In Vice

The Buffalo Bills' annual visit to South Florida also serves as the team's lone scheduled prime-time appearance of 2014, a Thursday-night affair that sets up a conundrum for your friendly sports columnist.

The game took place well after the deadline for Artvoice's print edition, assuring that a large number of readers enjoying this piece already know what happened between the Bills and Dolphins.

Not that it matters a whole lot. We have already hashed through Buffalo's mystifying Week 10 giveaway to Kansas City over at, a defeat that brings some clarity to the team's murky playoff hopes.

The loss to the Chiefs places an ominous requirement in the way of the Bills' opportunity to reach the postseason for the first time since most people relied on something called a television (TEL-uh-vizh-un) as their primary source for news and entertainment.

To have a shot at the 10-6 record that will likely serve as the cutoff for playoff participation, they will now have to win at least one of their December matchups against Denver, Green Bay and New England. In the event of a loss in Miami, Buffalo will have to beat two of those teams. And sweep the Jets, Browns and Raiders.

For anyone not following along closely, the Broncos, Packers and Patriots are three of the NFL's leading Super Bowl contenders, including the clear-cut top two in the AFC.

New England (7-2 heading into Week 10) recovered from a shaky first month to lay waste to the rest of the league through October and early November, including a 43-21 pasting of Denver and a 37-22 mauling of the Bills, each involving four touchdown passes by Tom Brady.

Denver (also 7-2) won four straight leading up to the New England game, averaging 37 points per game. Properly humbled by the Patriots, the Broncos thrashed Oakland 41-14 behind five Peyton Manning touchdown passes on Sunday.

Green Bay (6-3) has been slightly less consistently dominant, but most recently showed its full potential in a 55-14 blowout over Chicago on Sunday Night Football, with Aaron Rodgers piling up six touchdown throws -- all in the first half.

It's not just that the Patriots, Broncos and Packers have better records than the Bills. When they are at their best, they appear to be playing a different sport altogether.

Buffalo's defense, particularly the overwhelming front wall of starting tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and ends Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, has been the best unit on the field for either team in seven of the first nine games (all five wins and the losses to Houston and Kansas City).

The offense, whether quarterbacked by E.J. Manuel or Kyle Orton, tries to do enough to keep the defense's effort from going to waste.

That formula was enough to sneak by undermanned or under-performing foes like, well, all five of the teams the Bills have beaten. But the offense could not keep up with either the Patriots or San Diego, and its blundering turned winnable games against the Texans and Chiefs into demoralizing defeats.

With injuries stripping the depth chart at running back, the offensive line struggling to perform its most basic tasks and both Orton and Manuel looking like, at best, decent backups more often than not, Buffalo has scored 17 points or fewer in five of its nine games.

The Broncos, Patriots and Packers, meanwhile, have been held to 17 or fewer points a total of four times between them -- with all four misfires taking place in September. Since Oct. 1,  they have averaged 35, 37 and 40 points per game, respectively.

Buffalo has exceeded 35 points once, thanks largely to the competition between Geno Smith and Michael Vick to see who could turn the ball over the most often (it turned out dead even, though Smith earned the tiebreaker by getting to three the fastest).

Of course, this is the NFL, where things can change in a hurry (see the previously pitiful New York Jets' win over Pittsburgh last weekend, for instance).

So the groins of Fred Jackson and Sammy Watkins could heal enough to make them fully operational. The offensive line could continue the marginal improvement shown against the Jets and Chiefs. The pass rush, which has notched a league-leading 34 sacks heading into the Miami game, could cause enough mayhem to at least slow Manning, Rodgers and Elway a little.

And in his 11th NFL season with his fourth team, Orton could finally put it all together and be able to keep up with the league's three best quarterbacks.

All of that could happen. It's just that there is little basis beyond reckless optimism to think that it will.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Orton, Fitz, Marrone, Chan -- What's The Difference?

When you don't win a truly meaningful football game for a decade-and-a-half, it's only natural that the losses start to resemble each other.

This, however, is ridiculous.

The most recent kick in the groin -- Buffalo's improbable, come-from-ahead 17-13 loss to Kansas City -- managed to cause not one, but three disturbing flashbacks.

--- The first, and most obvious, came on the Bills' opening drive of the second half. Already leading 10-3, their longest extended possession of the afternoon had them ready to take a two-score lead that the Chiefs are not built to overcome when Bryce Brown somehow got stripped on his way to the goal line. The ball bounced into the end zone, where Scott Chandler somehow failed to keep it from escaping the end zone.

The particulars were a little different, but the double blunder conjured painful memories of last year's Chiefs game, when the Bills led 10-3 and were moving inexorably toward a larger margin on their first drive of the second half. Until Kansas City cornerback Sean Smith grabbed Jeff Tuel's panicky slant pass and went the length of the field to tie the game. Buffalo never scored again, and the Chiefs took that one 17-10.

--- This time, the Bills clung to the lead for another full quarter. And then Leodis McKelvin happened.

You might recall Buffalo was a little more than two minutes from its first win in Foxborough since 2000 in the 2009 season opener. The Patriots kicked off after cutting Buffalo's lead to five points. and all McKelvin -- beginning his second season after the Bills made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2008 draft, was not fumble.

After catching Steven Gostkowski's kick in the end zone, McKelvin -- beginning his second season after the Bills made him the No. 11 overall pick in the 2008 draft -- could have taken a knee.

He did not. Still, after deciding to try for a splashy, game-sealing runback, all he really had to do was not fumble.

He fumbled.

Two plays later, the Patriots took the lead for the first and only time.

On Sunday, with Buffalo up by three points and having just forced Kansas City to go three-and-out, McKelvin -- who seemed to have finally shaken the injuries and mistakes that marked much of his first six seasons -- went back to field Dustin Colquitt's punt. He could have called for a fair catch, just to be safe.

He did not. Still, after deciding to try for a splashy, game-sealing runback, all he really had to do was not fumble.

He fumbled.

Three plays later, the Chiefs took the lead for the first and only time.

(Note: Providing Brown, McKelvin and every other member of the Bills who has occasion to touch the football with this photograph of Chris Hogan scoring the only Buffalo touchdown WITH BOTH ARMS WRAPPED AROUND THE BALL would be a pretty solid idea.)

--- As if the above were not traumatizing enough, the Bills got close enough for one more shot, thanks to McKelvin holding on to the Chiefs' next punt, then returning it 23 yards.

To be precise, it was four more shots from the 15-yard line. With a chance to pull off his third late comeback win in five starts, Buffalo's well-traveled veteran quarterback short-armed Watkins at the goal line twice and sailing a pair of passes intended for Hogan in the end zone sandwiched between.

Much like when another well-traveled veteran Bills quarterback brought them to the brink of an unlikely comeback on the road against New England in 2012, only to misfire on the game's decisive throw.

That game would turn out to be Ryan Fitzpatrick's last 300-yard passing performance with Buffalo. Orton's inaccuracy -- especially in a situation where you would expect a seasoned quarterback to hit at least once in four tries, and on a day when the defense did more than enough to win the game -- is the biggest flaw making it hard to imagine him as anything but a placeholder at the position.

Speaking of guys with destabilizing job security, Doug Marrone did not help his cause to get a third season from the Bills' new owners with a series of fourth-down and game-management decisions that triggered unpleasant memories of Chan Gailey and every failed coach to cycle through Buffalo over the last 15 years.

So the Bills are 5-4 heading into Thursday night's game at Miami for what amounts to a playoff eliminator for the loser. Whatever the outcome, a brutal December schedule looms. And the cycle of changing forgettable coaches every few years and swapping out non-descript quarterbacks even more frequently, a rotation underway since Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season and Marv Levy followed a year later, continues unabated.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bills Take On Chiefs, Legacy Of Late-Season Failure

A little history to think about leading up to today's meeting between the Buffalo Bills and the equally 5-3 Kansas City Chiefs:

Since they last made the playoffs following the 1999 season, the Bills have played 47 games after Nov. 1 against teams that ultimately reached the postseason.

Buffalo has won nine of them.

That's a .191 winning percentage.

Much of that is ancient history, by modern NFL standards. Since 2008, though, it gets even uglier. The Bills are 2-13 against playoff-bound teams since Trent Edwards' first season as Buffalo's full-time starter.

Even those two victories come with caveats. In 2011, the Bills exposed Tim Tebow -- again -- as a charismatic, earnest young man not good enough at playing quarterback to last in the league at that position. And the 30-7 win over Indianapolis in the season finale came against a 14-1 Colts team with nothing to play for, as evidenced by Curtis Painter replacing Peyton Manning for the second half for the second straight week.

So the Bills have not won a game against a playoff-caliber foe operating with a legitimate starting quarterback for the entire contest since 2007, when they edged Washington 17-16. And that one barely qualifies, since the quarterback in question was Jason Campbell and coaching legend Joe Gibbs tried to ice Rian Lindell twice at the end, the second time with a timeout he did not possess.

Today's visit by the Chiefs is the first of six occasions on which the Bills will face an opponent in contention for this year's postseason tournament.

Kansas City enjoys a couple of key match-up advantages:

-- The league's sixth-ranked running attack goes up against against a Buffalo rush defense that has yielded 158 and 175 yards in its last two outings.

-- A pass rush that ranks third in the NFL with 27 sacks (one fewer than the No. 2 Bills) will be chasing after Kyle Orton, who has been dumped 17 times in four starts, thanks in no small part to an offensive line that could generously be called shaky.

Orton and Doug Marrone have had an extra week to prepare for a chance at succeeding where Chan Gailey, Perry Fewell, Dick Jauron, E.J. Manuel, Jeff Tuel (whose goal-line pick -six one year and six days ago helped keep Kansas City unbeaten), Ryan Fitzpatrick, Edwards, and J.P. Losman have repeatedly failed.

After all, in sports, history doesn't mean anything.

Except when it does.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Halfway There: Time To Break Out The Zubaz?

Halfway through their 2014 schedule, the Buffalo Bills have positioned themselves to earn their first playoff berth since:

• Fans were debating the relative merits of Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson in the present tense;

• Dominik Hasek was starring in national credit-card commercials; and

• Hopes for downtown revitalization hinged on grandiose plans by the owner of the Sabres.

Fifteen years later:

• No one is arguing over who should start at quarterback for the Bills (this week, at least);

• Much of the general public would be hard-pressed to spell, or even come up with, the name of either Sabres’ goalie; and

• Hopes for downtown revitalization are already fueled by actual construction financed by the owner of the Sabres (and, this being Buffalo, helped along by $57 million in tax breaks).

Coming out of their bye week at 5-3 and off of their most impressive win of the season, the Bills could inspire the sort of local hysteria over the next two months that leads employers to re-institute “Bills Fridays” and inspires radio stations to record awkward fight songs.

Or their playoff run could be effectively over in a week, before you can even find that pair of red, white and blue Zubaz you stored away in the basement back in the ‘90s.

Buffalo hosts one of the AFC’s three other 5-3 teams when Kansas City visits Sunday, then travel to South Florida to take on another four days later.

By the end of the Thursday-night game against the Dolphins, Buffalo’s lone scheduled prime-time appearance of the season, it will be clear whether these Bills are actual contenders for the postseason, or if their record is the product of good timing, fortunate breaks and lousy opponents.

The Chiefs and Dolphins -- who have looked nothing like the team that got swamped 29-10 by the Bills in Week 2-- have each won three straight and four of their last five since their respective shaky starts. Their quarterbacks are playing well, their key offensive weapons remain ambulatory and their kickers are not horrific, eliminating the built-in advantages Buffalo has enjoyed throughout the Orton Era.

Which is just as well. Getting to 5-3, even given the softer first-half schedule, has been an accomplishment given the offensive turmoil brought about by injuries at running back, upheaval at quarterback and ineptitude along the offensive line.

At least the same record will be required to grab one of the AFC’s two wild-card berths (we’re not even going to discuss the division title until and unless the Patriots start playing like humans again). The Bills have to get significantly better if that’s going to happen.

In all, six of the final eight opponents have records equal to or better than Buffalo’s. Assuming wins over the Jets and Raiders (which is admittedly presumptuous, even if they are a combined 1-17), three more victories need to be found among the Chiefs (5-3), Dolphins (5-3), Browns (5-3), Broncos (6-2), Packers (5-3) and Patriots (7-2).

Any improvement starts with the offensive line, to this point the worst of any AFC playoff contender.

The running game was dismal, even before Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller went down against Minnesota in Week 7. Buffalo is 23rd in the NFL in rushing yards per game and 22nd in yards per attempt. And those substandard rankings get a boost from the few long runs the Bills have broken—a 53-yard sprint that ended with Spiller writhing on the turf, his collarbone broken; Jackson’s 39-yard romp to set up the game-winner in Chicago; and Dixon’s 47-yarder against the highly permissive Bears.

Without those three runs, Buffalo’s runners have averaged 3.2 yards per attempt, with even that feeble number trending downward. The Jets may be otherwise in complete disarray, but Buffalo was able to scrape out just 2.1 yards a carry in the blowout.

The pass protection has not been any better, with Orton absorbing 17 sacks in four games since replacing E.J. Manuel, who was dumped six times in his four starts. Again, the line regressed in New Jersey, permitting four sacks and forcing its highly immobile quarterback to scramble twice among 23 drop-backs.

Despite the blocking issues, Orton is playing at least as well as he ever has, thanks largely to Sammy Watkins becoming the breakout star of this year’s rookie class.

With Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Jerry Hughes and Mario Williams dominating up front and rookie Preston Brown ably filling in for Kiko Alonso, Buffalo stands eighth in run defense and 13th against the pass (a deceptive ranking, since the Bills are No. 1 in both interceptions and sacks per game).

All of which won’t mean much if they can’t start blocking at least nearly as well as they have been tackling, starting Sunday against Kansas City.

From Dareus To The Donald: Two Months Of Ups And Downs

With the Bills preparing to face equally 5-3 Kansas City in the first of a series of games against fellow AFC playoff aspirants, We Want Marangi presents its prestigious Half-Season Awards:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER/DEFENSE: Last summer, the off-field misadventures of Marcell Dareus had fans and some media demanding the Bills cut ties with the third overall pick in the 2011 draft.

Good thing the Bills didn't listen.

Turns out the massive defensive tackle's pair of arrests -- first for felony drug possession, then for drag-racing defensive end Jerry Hughes near Ralph Wilson Stadium -- within a 19-day span, and subsequent entry into the league's substance-abuse program, were not signs that Dareus was yet another disastrous Buffalo first-round selection, after all.

After showing flashes in his first two season and earning a Pro Bowl berth in his third, Dareus emerged as one of the NFL's dominant interior linemen through the first eight games of 2014, leading a unit that has Buffalo leading the league in interceptions and sacks per game while largely stifling opposing running games.

Having recorded a career-high 7.5 sacks last year, he already has seven through eight games, as well as four stops of opposing runners for losses and a forced fumble. When not ending plays himself, he occupies multiple blockers and disrupts both run-blocking and pass-protection schemes, creating openings for the rest of Buffalo's defensive front.

Playing next to Kyle Williams helps, but Dareus showed he can cause havoc all by himself, taking down Detroit's Matthew Stafford three times with Williams sidelined by a knee injury, while blowing up the middle of the line on what seemed like every Lions run.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER/OFFENSE: Sammy Watkins gets this one over Kyle Orton, in part because Orton has started four of Buffalo's eight games, and was pretty lousy for at least three-quarters of the first three.

Buffalo's first-round pick in 2014 (and, in essence, 2015) had a decent first quarter of the season, despite dealing with bruised ribs and E.J. Manuel's accuracy issues, but has fully weaponized since Orton took over, piling up 21 catches for 393 yards and three touchdowns over the last month, including the game-winning score against Minnesota and a pair of morale-shattering bombs in Buffalo's 43-23 destruction of the New York Jets.

Those numbers would be even more impressive if offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had not apparently forgotten Watkins was on the roster during the lone loss during that stretch, the 37-22 hammering by New England. Or if Watkins had not gotten a little carried away on what should have been an 89-yard touchdown against the Jets.

No question, the veteran quarterback has helped make the rookie receiver better, but the reverse is also true.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER/OFFENSE: Name an offensive lineman. Any offensive lineman.

When Cordy Glenn is your best linemen, you have problems. Two 2014 draft choices, left guard Cyril Richardson and right tackle Seantrel Henderson, have looked lost. Veteran guards Erik Pears and Kraig Urbik have looked shot. Center Eric Woods may have been marginally better, but it's pretty tough to tell with all the chaos around him.

Marrone says another rookie, second-round selection Cyrus Kouandijo, may join the rotation at guard. The young blockers should get better the longer they work together, particularly given Marrone's reputation as an offensive line coach.

It's unpleasant to imagine them getting much worse.

LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER/DEFENSE: Tough choice given how well the defense has performed and the lack of a consistently weak link, but Duke Williams' unprovoked assault in lieu of pass coverage on New England's Julian Edelman deserves special recognition.

The worst part of the infraction that set up the Patriots' first touchdown was not the two-handed shove, though that was both pretty bad. The worst part was that the penalty was totally unnecessary, as he was in good position to at least deflect Tom Brady's pass, had he simply turned and looked for the ball.

Williams has made some nice special-teams stops, but clinched the LVP/D award later in the same game by getting himself totally lost on both of Brandon LaFell's fourth-quarter touchdown catches, the second of which sealed the game for New England.

BEST WIN: It may not have been a complete aesthetic success, and it came against a team actively disintegrating, but a 6-0 turnover advantage, four touchdown passes in 10 completions by Kyle Orton and Watkins' 157 yards on three catches added up to a 43-23 win against the Jets, sending the Bills into their bye week at 5-3 and preserving the chance to make the second half of a season mean something for a change.

WORST LOSS: Manuel's confused performance in Houston not only derailed his professional career, it cost Buffalo a game it should have won and could really use heading down the stretch.

Other than J.C. Watt's usual transcendent afternoon, the Texans were terrible. But Manuel's afternoon, particularly his game-turning misfire to Watt, made Ryan Fitzpatrick look halfway decent by comparison.

Subsequent events have proven otherwise. The 4-5 Texans at long last became the fifth NFL team to realize the immensely likable Fitzpatrick simply is not good enough earlier this week, benching him for longtime Tom Brady caddy Ryan Mallett.

BEST LOSS: None of the three have been what even someone who believes in such things would call a moral victory. But the Bills started strong against New England and should have been up by a couple of scores at halftime, but for a couple of Orton turnovers.

Of course, that was the game in which the Patriots became self-aware and began laying waste to the rest of the league, so past performance is no guarantee that the Bills can hang with them for even two quarters when they visit Foxborough in the season finale.

WORST WIN: Tough one. Neither the Lions or Vikings games were particularly pleasant to watch for the first 58 minutes of game time or so, and both should have been much more comfortable scores than 17-14 and 17-16, respectively, given the state of the opponents involved.

The survival against Minnesota gets the nod, though, because Buffalo lost C.J. Spiller for the season and Fred Jackson for at least a month.

BEST PLAY: Dan Carpenter kicked the longest game-winning field goal in team history to beat Detroit.

Spiller's 102-yard kickoff return broke open the win against the Dolphins.

And Fred Jackson's 39-yard romp through and over the Bears set up Carpenter's overtime winner in the season opener.

Orton's 28-yard throw to a leaping Chris Hogan at the Minnesota 2-yard line, setting up the decisive slant pass to Watkins, takes the honors, though. If not for that play (and the Orton-to-Carpenter fourth-and-20 conversion moments earlier), the Bills would have lost to a team with a struggling rookie quarterback and without its franchise running back. At home. And this post would certainly have a more cynical flavor.

WORST PLAY: How could E.J. have not seen J.J.?

BEST OFF-FIELD DEVELOPMENT: Terry and Kim Pegula's purchase of the Bills from the estate of Ralph Wilson spared everyone additional years of speculation about the team's future in Western New York.

It also returned Jon Bon Jovi and Donald Trump to their rightful place as C-list celebutantes to be mocked and scorned, rather than carpetbagging vultures to be feared and loathed.